What Gladwell’s ‘Outliers’ Can Teach You About Marketing

In his latest book, Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell asks, “Why are we so squeamish? Why is the fact that each of us comes from a culture with its own distinctive mixture of strengths and weaknesses, tendencies and predispositions can be so difficult to acknowledge? Who we are cannot be separated from where we’re from — and when we ignore that fact, planes crash.” The plane-crash reference is tied in to a chapter titled “The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes,” in which Gladwell analyzes how the culturally influenced communication styles of pilots have contributed to tragic in-flight missteps and fatal outcomes.

In an interview on his own blog, Gladwell states, “I was actually stunned by how strong the connection is between culture and crashes, and it’s something that I would never have dreamed was true, in a million years.”

While “Outliers” is positioned as a book about success, it is worth recommending in the context of the multicultural marketing dialogue. By including insights into Hofstede’s Dimensions and cultural legacies, Gladwell manages to reinforce the premise that cultural legacy is part and parcel of consumer behavior and should be embraced as such by marketers and their respective agencies.

So why are people in marketing circles so “squeamish” about culture — or, to paraphrase Attorney General Eric Holder’s controversial remarks, in things racial and cultural why are we an industry of cowards? Here are just a few thoughts on the subject.

1. We have trouble distinguishing legitimate cultural influences from stereotypes. Fear of stereotyping often leads to the decision to avoid any mining of cultural references in advertising. Hofstede’s work revealed four dimensions of culture: symbols, heroes, rituals and values. It is the overuse of these dimensions or the uninformed use that leads to stereotyping. There is nothing inherently wrong with the Latino respect for elders as portrayed by the abuela figure, for example, or the strength of soccer or the focus on family. It is when these symbols and heroes and values are used ad nauseam or used at their most superficial level that they lose value and may ultimately come to be deemed offensive. Not to mention that the depth and breadth of the totality of the Hispanic experience, both in the U.S. and abroad, demands a deeper appreciation and respect than is reflected in the superficial overuse of a few limited cultural cues.

2. We think cultural legacies are part of our past and not our present or future. Again, to quote Gladwell, “Cultural legacies are powerful forces. They have deep roots and long lives. They persist, generation after generation, virtually intact, even as the economic and social and demographic conditions that spawned them have vanished, and they play such a role in directing attitudes and behavior that we cannot make sense of our world without them.”

3. People gravitate toward what they can see, or at least to what they can hear. The color of people’s skin and the sound of languages are more tangible than culturally influenced value systems. It’s hard to see or hear a value system, but as Hofstede’s Dimensions illustrates, values are the deepest articulation of culture. Symbols are the most superficial. “What’s Hispanic about it?” is often asked by clients when Hispanic agencies have presented creative work without overt symbols or rituals. The answer is usually in the use of a core value that isn’t readily seen but can easily be understood when the right cultural filter is applied.

4. We think it is progressive to “see beyond” race and culture vs. to be at ease with acknowledging their existence. Finally, there are those who criticize the use of culture, ethnicity, race or other related variables as being inappropriate, racist, insensitive or segregationist, to name a few perceived drawbacks. In-school and at-work politeness techniques, sometimes taught in the guise of diversity training, encourage us to think of people “as one” vs. “as many.” Along these lines, there are those who assert that there is no race, just the human race. It’s simply not the case. Nor, in my opinion, is it forward thinking to believe it is. What is important for our collective futures is to acknowledge race, ethnicity and culture and to stop judging it. What gets in the way of unity is the need to classify cultures or languages or skin colors or rituals as better than or worse than — first world or third world, for example. As marketers, there is great value in targeting consumers from a cultural perspective rooted in ethnicity, heritage, race-related influences and the like. Don’t “see beyond” these things. See them. See them as integral to the total consumer picture. And don’t use the word “integrated” if what you really mean is “no longer distinguishable.”

“Outliers” uses stories about Jewish lawyers, Asian math students, Colombian pilots and Gladwell’s own Jamaican mother to drive home points about the relationship between success and cultural legacies. Since Gladwell is held in high regard by the marketing community, I’m hoping that the culture-based part of the success message is taken in by readers and that it has some affect on the way culture is viewed in the development of tailored marketing programs directed to the various segments of the U.S. Hispanic population and others.

Originally published in Ad Age/BigTent blog

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